In Amazonia

Santarém, Brazil.

For decades now the green movement has been tying itself in knots about this part of the world. The forest which covers Amazonia, 60 per cent of the land area of one of the world largest countries is, we are told a resource for humanity. Indeed the great Amazon itself is a resource for humanity. Doesn’t it contain a fifth of all the world’s fresh water?

After all it is the world’s greatest river, twelve times as big as the Mississippi as it flows past what is left of New Orleans and sixteen times as voluminous as the Nile as it flows past the rather more durable Pyramids. If you stand at the mouth of the Amazon, say downstream in Belém or on the great island of Marajó, you will see as much water flowing past you in a day as you would if you stood on Westminster Bridge in London beside Big Ben for a year. As your plane starts its descent into Belém you see a tiny city of a million people perched on the Amazon’s muddy banks which is dwarfed by the mass of water flowing around and past it to the horizon.

The other day I stood here in Santarém beside the Tapajós River, one of the largest of the Amazon’s one thousand tributaries, as it moved to towards its confluence with the Amazon. The Tapajós measures 16 kilometres across and it flows through one of the states of Amazonia, Para, which is larger than Ireland, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg put together.

Amazonia contains about a fifth of all plant, animal and insect species on the planet, half the bird species, the largest parrots, rodents and ants, not to speak of the longest snakes. And, greens of the world argue, ignorant Brazilians are allowing the Amazonian forests to be cut down mercilessly while the great Tapajós is polluted by the effluents of mercury which are released from the gold diggings upriver. These must be saved from its feckless inhabitants. Taken into care. Internationalised. Rescued. Saved for future generations the world over. Now. Immediately. There is no time to lose.

Yet the argument, so often rehearsed in the Western media and pressure groups, is bizarre. No such international concern for someone else’s country is mirrored in a demand for foreign supervision to prevent the sort of disastrous oil pollution as inflicted on US Alaska by the tanker Exxon Valdez. Or for foreign oversight of the exiguous but politically sensitive Israeli-controlled waters of the River Jordan, the centre of a desperate battle for water between the prosperous Israelis growing well irrigated herbs for European supermarkets and the battered Palestinians who just need something for their children to drink.

One of the reasons why it is bizarre lies in the fact that the green discourse about Amazonia rarely devotes much time to the human inhabitants of the region as it does to the flora and fauna. A report just published by Venessa Fleischfresser, a leading Brazilian academic at the Federal University of Paraná, shows that a better focus on the human problems of the region who are so often ignored in the green discourse could reverse the ecological damage that is being caused.

She has found that those areas of Amazonia where the land is being cleared with the greatest abandon are those where slavery is most in commonly practiced. Now the region has a long and shameful record of slavery. The first Jesuit missionaries, who sought to evangelise the Indians, held out against their being enslaved by the Portuguese conquistadores and landowners. The political pressure on these missionaries was so great in the 17th century that they decided to lift their opposition to the introduction of foreign slaves from Africa if the indigenes were spared the forced labour. Then in the mid-18th century the Jesuits themselves were expelled from Portuguese-controlled lands and the order itself suppressed. Education in Brazil, which was at the time mainly in their hands, suffered a blow from which it is only beginning to recover. There was a massive revolt of Indians, blacks and poor whites in Amazonia in 1835 which was finally put down with the utmost cruelty in 1840. Then the rubber boom brought more slavery to the seringueiros, those who were recruited to tap the rubber trees. The South American rubber barons who worked the seringueiros to death were brought low only after the publication of a damning report written by Roger Casement when he was a British diplomat and before he threw in his lot with Irish revolutionaries and was condemned to hang at Pentonville prison in August 1916.

Now there is a new form of slavery as landowners in Amazonia concentrate on clearing the forest in order to plant soya beans. In great demand throughout the world, particularly by those responsible for the fast growing economy of China, soya is the crop of the hour in Brazil.

Dr Fleischfresser shows that slavery is widespread in Amazonia with poor unemployed country people being bussed in from North-East Brazil and put to work on clearing the forests. Money for their bus fares is loaned to them. They have to buy their needs at the landowners’ stores and their meagre earnings are never sufficient to allow them to be able to pay off a gradually mounting debt. The employers’ fraud is the same one which was played on the seringueiros kept in similar bondage by the rubber barons in Casement’s time.

Though many cases of slavery go undetected, between 1999 and 2001 2,600 people were found and freed from slavery while in 2002 a further 1,149 people were emancipated. This has needed the passing of a law making such abuses a federal crime and taking it out of the often rickety justice system of the individual states. There is a move afoot to set up a much needed witness protection programme to safeguard those who give evidence from the casual and often lethal violence of the landowners. Eight workers, for instance, were murdered on a ranch in a village called São Félix do Xingu in February 2003 and less than a year later three Ministry of Labour inspectors were killed at Unaí, the home of many people owning land in the state of Pará.

The pattern of slavery and violence is found principally in areas where illegal clearing of the forest is happening. Corruption connected with illegal clearing is prevalent. In December 2004, for instance, the Federal Police arrested 18 civil servants in the State of Para and accused them of corruptly making over to landowners titles to great swathes of public land which were to be stripped of their trees.

International attention was directed to the problems of the area only when a US missionary Dorothy Stang was murdered by landowners’ assassins on 12 February last year. Born in Ohio, the 73 year-old nun had been in Brazil since 1966 and taken Brazilian nationality. Since 1982 she had been on the Brazilian bishops’ Pastoral Land Commission. Sister Dorothy had been keen on teaching peasants to read: nine out of ten of the slaves are found to be illiterate. She had given evidence to a parliamentary commission of inquiry into illegal logging, naming individuals and companies.

She lived though most of the Western-supported military dictatorship which blighted Brazil and its forests. In his marvellous book Big Mouth: the Amazon speaks Stephen Nugent, himself a US citizen, explains, “The structure of the national economy is inseparable from the US hemispheric policies in which Brazil has… functioned as a major market – controlled between 1964 (when a US-backed coup delivered Brazil into the hands of a cabal of generals) and 1985 (when the generals slunk out of office) by a class which did a fantastic job of lining its pockets.”

On Sister Dorothy’s death the government of President Lula jumped into action and created a ministerial task force and helicoptered 2,000 troops to the scene of the crime. Yet violence and slavery have not yet been stamped out here.

But President Lula has been building up his record in tackling Amazonian problems. Since he came into office in January 2003 he has put preservation orders on more than 240,000 square kilometres of land, more than three times the area of the twenty-six counties and twice as much as his predecessor decreed in either of his four-year terms.

He has introduced a family support system which helps poor families provided they keep their children at school and thus give them the tools to make better lives for themselves. Lula, who is far ahead in the polls and should win a second presidential term of four years in elections to take place on 1 October, knows that the problems of Amazonia lie more with the people than with plants and animals.

That’s something that foreign ecologists who agitate about Brazil should start learning.

HUGH O’SHAUGHNESSY writes, inter alia, for the Dublin magazine Village.